Legendary Scottish rockers, Big Country, finally made it to Australia for their first tour to this part of the world only two short years ago. It had been a long 33 year wait for their loyal long-suffering Australian fans.
Now, the band appear to be making up for lost time and, ecstatic at the reception they received on that first tour, have scheduled a raft of Australian gigs on their latest road odyssey. They will be celebrating their debut album, 1983’s The Crossing, and playing it in its glorious entirety here in Adelaide in mid-March.
Ask any of those who saw them last time out and they will confirm that Big Country’s distinctive twin guitar attack sounds as good as ever, so expectations are understandably high for this return gig.
Recently, founding member and original guitarist, Bruce Watson, spoke to The Upside News about the upcoming tour and took some time out to reflect on the recording of their iconic first record.
The Upside News: Thanks for speaking to The Upside News, Bruce.
It didn’t seem that long ago that I was talking to your bandmate, Mark Brzezicki, about the band coming down to tour Australia for the first time. I saw you at The Gov and you said you’d be coming back to our shores pretty quickly – and, keeping your word, it appears you are! What’s bringing you back so soon?
Bruce Watson: Well, we just got asked to come back down there again, and I think that this time we get to come out for a little bit longer. We were only out there for ten days last time, so we’ll have a few weeks this time and go right down to New Zealand’s South Island as well, which we’re looking forward to. Obviously, we’re playing more places in Australia this time – places we haven’t been before. It’s going to be great fun!
TUN: So what was your impression of Australia on the last tour? Had you been here playing with anyone else previously?
BW: Oh, we’d been down there previously. We went down there in the mid-80’s to shoot some video stuff, down in Wittenoom, but we never had played Australia as a group before. So when we got asked if we wanted to do it, well we just jumped at the chance.
TUN: I have to say, I was really surprised to see that you still had so many fans committed enough here to tour around Australia and go to every gig. I mean, it must feel really good to command that sort of fan loyalty after all these years?
BW: Yeah, well people like that actually came in from England, and bought tickets to follow us around Australia! And to meet so many people across there who were fans of the band back in the day and who were still following us on our website, and across Facebook and stuff like that, well, it’s great!
TUN: And the line-up of the band for the March 2018 tour, is it still the same guys that toured here in June 2016?
BW: Yeah, exactly the same line-up.
TUN: So Simon is now a permanent member on vocals and no longer a temporary replacement for Mike Peters?
BW: Yes, Simon’s now in the band.
TUN: And your son, Jamie, on guitar – he’s been in the band long enough to get all of the youthful rock star impulses out of his system?
TUN: Did you ever have to turn a blind eye as he threw TVs out of hotel windows?
BW: (Laughs) Nah, it’s all computer discs they carry about these days – and they don’t hurt anybody if they fall!
TUN: Is it a competitive thing – the young gun trying to outdo his dad on guitar?
BW: Nah, it’s never been like that. Music is definitely not a competition. It’s not a sport! (Laughs)
TUN: Now, of course, the focus of this upcoming tour is the playing of your first album, The Crossing, in its entirety. Can we chat a little about how the band originally came together and how that album came to be?
BW: Yeah. Basically, Stuart Adamson and myself started working together in 1981, and we basically just started writing songs together, of which about six of those new songs ended up on that first album.
And then we got a band together – our management situation ended up getting us together with Tony [Butler] and Mark [Brzezicki] who were a rhythm section from down in London, and they had played together with people like Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey. We’d grown up on The Who and on soul albums. So that’s how that all came to be about.
We ended up working in a studio with Chris Thomas which was great, but he couldn’t commit to the project – he was working with Elton John at the same time in Monserrat so he couldn’t commit. So then we ended up doing, what was going to be, just one single with Steve Lillywhite – which was Fields Of Fire – but a window opened up where he was free, and that’s how we ended up doing The Crossing with Steve.
TUN: And that was before he became the go-to production ‘wunderkind’, wasn’t it? Because after that he was very much in demand…
BW: Oh no, he was doing very well at the time. He’d done a lot of the XTC stuff and he’d been working with The Pretenders, and stuff like that. Simple Minds. He was doing all of that stuff. Steve was very much in demand at the point we were working with him.
TUN: You said you were writing songs with Stuart Adamson pretty early on. Stuart’s pathway to the band, of course was through The Skids, had you been in bands prior to Big Country or did you get together because you’d known each other prior? Were you old school friends? How did the connection with Stuart come about?
BW: No, no…I was four – no, two – years younger than Stuart. I was in a band that used to support The Skids way back in 1977.
Actually, the way things have gone is that we have just done a Skids’ fortieth anniversary tour [in 2017], and we’ve ended up writing a new album that will likely be released this year.
TUN: Excellent! The original band before Tony & Mark joined had other members – Peter Wishart [ex-Runrig] and his brother Alan, along with [former Athletico Spizz ’80 drummer] Clive Parker – was the trademark Big Country sound there originally, or did that only gel once Tony & Mark were on board?
BW: Yeah, the sound was there, but we only did a couple of gigs [with the original line-up]. We supported Alice Cooper on a tour with that line-up, but it just didn’t work out. And when Tony & Mark came in it came together. It was the same songs, but playing them with Tony & Mark took them into a different direction as well.
TUN: The composition of the songs on that first album are credited to the whole band so can you tell us something about the songwriting process – was it something that just arose collectively out of rehearsals, or was the process more around individuals bringing in a core idea that everybody added to? What was the process?
BW: It was kind of both really. Someone would come in with something, or we’d all be sitting around together. Half the songs on that album had been around before Tony & Mark were part of the band but they added so much to them, you know?
And the other half of the album was all four guys coming up with ideas and, you know, we’d stick a little cassette recorder in Mark’s drum kit, record, and then we’d let Stuart take the cassette away and he’d write some lyrics. Then the next week we’d go back in and demo the song with the lyrics. And then we’d give that to Steve Lillywhite and then we’d go in and do the album.
TUN: What came first – the band’s name, or the song, In A Big Country?
BW: Oh, the band’s name came first…
TUN: The big romantic, mythic quality of those first songs, was that a deliberate feel you aimed for from the outset, or did that steadily evolve as you started to play them?
BW: It just evolved. It was just the way things were happening. At that time Stuart’s lyrics were almost like poetry and he would take a lot of inspiration from books that he had been reading. From the next album on, the lyrics were a little bit more black and white, about things that were actually happening. So, on the first album, the lyrics are much more open to interpretation. Like hearing a story or watching a movie kind of thing, you know?
TUN: The album, looking back on it now, probably has five bona fide classics on it – In A Big Country, Chance, Harvest Home, Fields Of Fire, and Porrohman perhaps. Revisiting the album now as you are playing it in its entirety, what about those, in inverted commas, forgotten songs, on the rest of the album? Have they revealed strengths that you had forgotten they had?
BW: Well we have played the album in its entirety before, so I wouldn’t call them ‘forgotten songs’, but there are what you might call ‘epic’ songs on there – i.e. longer than six minutes, adventurous sort of songs on that album that could not have necessarily been singles. Songs like Lost Patrol, The Storm…these have very, very long passages, you know. So, it’s going to be great when we do those again because we haven’t done them for a few years. And there are the four hit singles on there as well.
TUN: Yes, the album still holds up remarkably well, and that was my next question. Do you ever feel surprised yourself about the longevity of these songs? I mean, you were all pretty young when you put that album together and it has certainly stood the test of time.
BW: Yeah, it’s weird. It’s just one of those albums that most people seem to have somewhere in their collection. It was just a happy accident that people just seemed to like that album.
TUN: What about your own attitude to those songs now? Do you see them differently than you did when you were younger?
BW: When we did that album, I was very young. It was the first album I ever recorded, so it was kind of all new to me, so I have very fond memories of it. The memories are still quite vivid because it was my first time.
Nowadays, I can pretty much play the four singles on that album with one hand tied behind my back in my sleep. I have played them so many times. But the other six songs are fresh because I have really only just re-learned them again,
TUN: But when you see the reaction you get when you play those singles live, you must forget the fact that you have played them so many times. When you played those songs here last year, there was such a sense of euphoria in the air with everybody singing along, transported by the music…it must be an absolutely great feeling each time?
BW: Oh it is. It’s a great, great feeling to go to a place you’ve never played before and have so many people come out and see you doing [those songs] – it’s just a wonderful feeling.
TUN: So, will this be the first of a series of these album retrospective showcases? For instance, Steeltown and The Seer would be great to hear in their entirety too. If this tour is a success, could you see the band, perhaps once a year, going out on the road to play other albums from the catalogue?
BW: Well, we have, in the UK, done Steeltown before in its entirety. And we have also done The Seer – so yeah, if there’s a market for it, you know…
TUN: Well, I think over here there probably would be, if you ever wanted to make it a regular thing in order to get away from your cold winters…
BW: Yeah, your winters are hotter than our summer!
TUN: You can’t envisage the band ever doing what Sparks did a few years back – playing your entire album catalogue in sequential order one night after the other in a two week block?
BW: Well I don’t know (Laughs). There are so many songs. We’ve got far too many songs! We’d be playing all night! It would be great for the fans – but it would be painful for us! (Laughs)
TUN: When you reformed the band after Stuart’s passing – that would have been mid to late 2000’s, I suppose – were you surprised at the scale of demand that still existed for the band’s music?
BW: Yeah. I mean, we weren’t the biggest band in the world, but we were kind of popular you know. Stuart passed away just after the band broke up and we all thought, obviously, that we’d never do anything as the band again, so everybody went off to do other things for eight or nine years.
And then when we did put the band back together again there was that sort of honeymoon period initially where everybody comes out to see you again because they think you are only going to do it just the once.
And then you see in the press, and on things like Facebook, that people are so interested in the band, and that’s why we’ve continued to do it.
TUN: You mentioned that in that period of hiatus there were other projects. I know that when I spoke to Mark before the last tour he was talking about his session work and working with Procol Harum. You were in a trio briefly with Tony and Mark too. What other projects did you get involved in during that lay-off period?
BW: Oh, there was another wee project called Dead Men Walking. That was with Mike Peters from The Alarm, Slim Jim from The Stray Cats, Kirk Brandon from Theatre Of Hate and Spear Of Destiny, and Glen Matlock from The Sex Pistols. We had this band going and that went for about four years. Just for maybe a month a year.
TUN: That would have been fun?
BW: Yeah! It was this acoustic kind of thing. So we did that and that was great.
TUN: And you did some work with Fish from Marillion? Was that during that period too?
BW: Oh yeah, yeah – I forgot about that one! Well we did that because Fish lives kind of close to me anyway. He’s only about thirty odd miles away. And every now and then he’ll give me a call if he wants me to play on one of his albums. And one of his albums – Field Of Crows it was called – I toured with him for that one for a little while.
But you know it’s weird when you play in someone else’s band. It’s never the same as your own baby. So while there’s always a place to play with other people, it’s always good to come back [to your own band].
TUN: Hearing you say that Fish just lives around the corner, to conceptualise that here everyone seems to live so far apart, but with Britain, relatively, being so small and Scotland being so small, the odds suggest you must bump into other players all the time!
BW: Not all the time. I mean, it is small, compared to you guys, but I don’t really bump into that many people. Most of the people in bands are down around the London area and I’m seldom down in that neck of the woods.
TUN: I got that notion from reading your blog where one of your entries describes how the Doves dropped in. I got the impression that musicians were dropping into your place quite regularly…
BW (Laughs) No – that was a long time ago, that one! The Doves just popped in to have breakfast! That was just a one-off!
TUN: Now, you said earlier that you have worked with The Skids on a new album that might be coming out very soon, but what about Big Country? There were some rumours, a year or so back, that once Simon had joined you were looking to record a new album? The band has only put out one studio album in the last 15 to 20 years – so a new album is due…
BW: It’s kind of tough because we’re a gigging band at the moment. And also because Simon and Scott, the bass player, have got other projects they’re working on at the moment as well, so it is kind of hard to get everyone together in the one place at the one time.
We’re on the road quite a lot too, so it’s just a matter of finding the time where we can actually get together and write. Hopefully one day…
TUN: So it’s just a matter of logistics then…
BW: Basically, yeah.
TUN: Well, it’s really exciting that you are returning to Australia again. I actually had tickets for your first ever Australian tour years ago that got cancelled – that was when Stuart was still in the band…
BW: I remember that…
TUN: …and that was really disappointing, so it was great to get to see you, at last, in 2016, and I’m really looking forward to hearing you play The Crossing at your upcoming Adelaide show.
I’m sure a lot of people who went to your last show will be coming back for more this time around, but, for those people who umm-ed and ahh-ed last time around and didn’t make the decision to go, what can you say to them to encourage them to come along to your March show? What are they going to get that they are never going to forget?
BW: Well, they are going to get the album in its entirety played exactly like we recorded it, plus some other stuff from our back catalogue as well.
Basically, people should keep an open mind and come along, and if you like it, you’ll like it.
TUN: And they will most likely have an emotional time, because it’s the sort of music that taps into something instinctual, something inside, that makes you sing along and feel joyous throughout the whole show.
BW: Thank you so much.
Big Country play at The Gov on Sunday March 11.
Tickets from usual outlets.